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  • Kate Coffee
Evening DJ Riz Rollins plays more than songs and tracks, he spins the night on Earth. He’s a mystic. A conductor, direttore. A connector. A music scholar, and an unfaltering on air medicine-man presence. For twenty years at KEXP, Riz has been guiding wattage, guarding the nocturne, sculpting sets, and sewing ambiences that put eyes in the speakers of the night. Listening to him increases your white blood cell count. Riz is Riz, a positive force, accessing the outer space of the inner mind. He knows the night, and knows what to play to get you through it. Riz keeps the ears of the city safe. We spoke. I was nervous. He beamed:

Are you a medicine man?
Riz: No.

What do you consider yourself?
I’m a squirrel trying to get a nut. To be honest with you, all this is surprising to me. For the first few years I thought, “Any minute now, I’m going to be done. Any minute, someone would walk in the room and say, that’s it, move over. We need to become more professional, more blah, blah, blah.” That it hasn’t happened is still a surprise to me. But really, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just doing it the best I can. If it turns out to be unique, then great. I’m going to continue to have inspirations, new and old. What were you wearing before you got here?

Brown Levi’s, a light blue shirt, and Uggs.
I can’t wear Uggs. You skinny bitches can wear shit like that.

The Uggs are more a house shoe. Do you screen your calls when you're on the air?
I have to.

Because you have all the people from Ugg calling trying to get you in their product.
And they try to get me to advertise for them. Me and Halle Berry. But she said she wouldn’t do it. And since she’s not doing it, I’m not doing it.

What were you listening to before you got here?
That’s not fair because I was doing homework, so I can DJ a party. It was Trentemøller. I don’t know what I think of it. What else? I have stacks of music all over. There’s Eyvind Kang, Port-Royal, Yo-Yo Ma doing the Bach Cello Concertos, Lusine, Murcof, the Roots, Philip Glass Low Symphony that he did with Bowie, and then Elvis Presley. He does this version of “Blue Moon” which is just other worldly sounding. Then this other stack has Snoop Dogg, Cee-Lo Green, Mogwai, and the Fugees. So many stacks. So much music.

How do you pull your sets together? How do you study the music? What makes you able to arrange this music in this way that’s so seamless and intuitive?
I think about it all the time. I’m pretty sensitive to music, to hearing music. I hear it everywhere, cause it’s happening everywhere. Sometimes it’s infuriating. If I’m having a meal somewhere, or watching a film. I just saw Away We Go and the music almost completely derailed the film for me even though it was incidental. I was like, “Why is this happening? You’re trying to tell me something, and I’m getting it, but it’s like you oversalted my food.” Music for me is emotional, I’m connected to it that way. So by the time I get to a set, particularly with radio, emotion effects it. Club work is different.

How do you deal with requests?
Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes they don’t fit. I’m on a track, and I think we’re going in that direction, then somebody wants to hear R Kelly. I think, “What? Well OK, I was serving you oysters and champagne, but you want fishsticks. Fuck. Now what am I gonna do?”

Did you play the R Kelly?
I don’t have it. I don’t have any R Kelly.

How do you gather your music?
I’m constantly gathering music. Last week Dave Segal wrote a piece about Omar Souleyman, and I thought, “I have that. I wonder how that would work?" Because I think that’s a great piece of music. I need to find a context for it. I’m not the kind of guy that’ll throw it out there because, “You ought to listen to this because we all know it’s great.” For me, it’s gotta fit. So the process of getting my sets there is like cooking. Getting all the ingredients together, especially when I’m doing Expansions. I try to get the station by 3:00 PM for a 9:00 PM show. Expansions has gotten so much harder to do because there’s so much more stuff. And what’s also cool is that the listening audience has gotten so much more sophisticated. Once the needle starts though, we’re flying, and it kind of has a life of its own. It doesn’t require listening to all of one track. Like I’ll be in some place and I’ll hear D’Angelo, and I’ll think, “I haven’t heard D’Angelo in a while, I’m going to play D’Angelo on Sunday.” And then everything grows from there. Again, requests just don’t work. It always pisses people off. People who want to make requests, always get pissed off, or disappointed, because sometimes they’re not connected to the whole. They don’t get it that there’s a whole thing I’m going for. I understand what they’re feeling too. They’re like, “I turned on the radio, and want to hear a certain song, what the fuck is wrong with you? How hard is it to just play me my song?” Then, when they’re finished hearing their song, they go back to doing whatever it is they were doing before. Unless you’ve got the ‘stump the DJ’ people.

Context seems key for you. Your sets have context. An integral facet.
Yeah. And there’s all sorts of contexts too. Sometimes it’s about picking one context. There’s this oil spill. That’s a context. You’re not ever playing in a neutral place. Whether it’s your own frame of reference or it’s the collective frame of reference, it’s not neutral. I think the more you pay attention to that, the better sets can be. I’ve heard plenty of DJ’s that have excellent mixing skills, and no context whatsoever. And nobody knows why it’s not working. The music’s OK, but somehow their ideas aren’t getting across. Some DJ’s don’t have ideas. It’s just music. But the best ones can pull those disparate elements together.

((On.The.Nighttime.Fly.Mix)) A playlist for Line Out by Riz Rollins:

1. Henry Mancini: "Lujon"
2. Erykah Badu ft. Kirsten Agresta: “Incense”
3. Juana Molina: “La Verdad”
4. Tyondai Braxton: “Uffe's Workshop”
5. Fang Island: “Davey Crockett (Live)”
6. Mountains: “Blown Glass Typewriter"
7. Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh: “Overloaded Ark”
8. Ghost: "Kiseichukan Nite"
9. Funkadelic: “Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On - 07 - Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts Part 1”
10. The Heliocentrics: "Winter Song"
11. Do Make Say Think: “Mr. Gowrie” (off Charles Spearin's side project album, The Happiness Project)
12. Me'Shell NdegéOcello: “White Girl”
**. Broken Social Scene: "Hotel"

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So how does the oil spill, and its registering on the collective level filter through to your sets?
Over Memorial Day, I was going to a Barbeque with a friend. We stopped at his house so he could get something and I waited in the car. It was a Sunday afternoon. Right before he went inside, he changed the radio station. We had been listening to Nat King Cole. The next song that came on was “Mercy Mercy Me” by Marvin Gay from What’s Going On. Not only was it completely out of left field, it fit the general malaise I’d been having for a couple of weeks, and I just started crying. My friend got back in the car and was like, “Damn, what happened to you?” I couldn’t recreate that moment. Cause the moment’s there and gone, and kinda redundant and obvious even. I had a radio show the next day. So what I tried to do was find something that addressed that feeling, that malaise, without being too obvious. Sometimes it might not have any message at all, it might just be the sound of the music. The tone of the music, whether it’s in a major key or a minor key. Or maybe the music ought to be angry. And then you go at it from there and hope that it works.

About your accessing the collective subconscious, it may be just intuitive for you, but are you into your dreams, or did you study the subconscious, or depth psychology? Do read books about it? What changes the context for you? You seem to be able to read what’s around you in life and you’re such a positive presence. Where would you say some of your taste comes from?

It’s kind of difficult to talk about. I was raised an Evangelical. The idea of Evangelism is that if you believe in something, depending on the severity or the weight of belief, you owe it to the rest of human kind to share it with them. So when you’re in a public forum, like the radio, or a club, then you have a responsibility toward the spirit of the people that are listening to do something. Dancing to me is a sacred thing. It really really is. So to see people get on that tip makes me happy. It’s almost like juggling fire at the same time, you want to keep doing that until there’s a release. It’s also like sex. This is really the same as talking about sex. When you’re with somebody, how is it that you decide for it to go where it’s going to go? You know where you wanna end up. You know that much. But how do you get to that point? DJ’ing is kind of the same for me. Like sex, I could do it everyday, for hours and hours and hours. Because you’re immersed in something that’s fluid and good. And it’s always been present for me. I started DJ'ing even before I really started DJ'ing. I went to bible college, and would buy records and play them for people, because that’s what I knew. I didn’t know the Gospels, I knew the music that I listened to. I grew up listening and dancing to music in church. There was a reason I responded to spirituality, because the music was so damn good. I can’t even describe how good it was. I don’t even know if you can find that happening now. I happened to grow up in the 60’s in Chicago, with that gospel.

When was the bible school?
That was in 1971. I went to a mostly white evangelical Christian school that didn’t have my kind of relationship to music. (Laughs.) They didn’t have ecstasy. You wouldn’t sit in their churches and see people passing out, and I did, that’s the way I grew up. Where I grew up, people ran into walls and fell out, and babbled incoherently. And passed out. And had to be awakened with smelling salts and fanned. Ecstasy really. We don’t get to do that kind of ecstasy any more, especially in public. I really miss it. And understand, that it didn’t just happen, there’s a tradition that lead to that, a progression. You didn’t just walk into a church and pass out, things had to happen. A community of people have to decide, “This is what we want, this is what we’re gonna get.” And you see evidence of that in music communities all over. Hip hop does that. The best of it. The best rock shows do that. Everyone becoming one and all that. The whole is greater than the sum of its part. It’s cleansing and affirming. That’s conscious.

If you were to compare how you DJ’d for radio when you first started to the way you DJ now, how would you say it has changed? What have you learned?
On the con side, I’ve been thinking about it recently, I don’t take as many risks. On that score, the KEXP audience has gotten so big, and they’re so vocal, they tend to not want to hear those risks. Or when they hear something that they consider jarring, they express themselves loudly. We get far more complaints about adventurous music than we do about boring music. Far more. So the fringe feels to be more fringe, and that makes it pretty hard. You’re less likely to hear Ornette Coleman between the hours of six in the morning and one at night, and that’s a bad thing to me. The only way out of that is to just play Ornette Coleman and say, “Fuck it, I’m playing Ornette Coleman.” That ought to be happening more.

I wish I could talk about it more in terms of positives. It’s really hard to do. Some of it is age. I’m more sensitive to the audience’s feedback now and that makes it harder. Because the audience is harder. I’ve been doing this for twenty years. Twenty years ago, if you didn’t want to hear something KEXP was playing, you didn’t listen to KEXP. Now, if you don’t want to hear something KEXP is playing, then you bring pressure to bear. That’s happening a lot more. And it’s discouraging. Even though it’s growing and people tend to embrace it, it’s harder to do. It happens all across the board. Sharlese sent me an email from someone that had complained saying something she had played was so bad they were about to go into seizures. People getting hyperbolic. And in the internet world, people forget that they’re talking to human beings who care about what they’re doing. The negativity feels like it weighs more. And I think people tend to listen to negativity more than positivity. Someone wrote in last week saying I make them want to burn their eye sockets out. I read it with my mouth open. But I don’t know anything. It sounds alright to me. What I’m doing sounds fine.

People tend not to want to hear long songs. They aren’t as willing to go into unfamiliar territory. People want more new music, without figuring out that there’s some music they haven’t heard. And if you haven’t heard it, then it’s new to you, right? You like Elliot Smith, but you haven’t heard all of those songs, you don’t know all of that music. When Expansions happens, I don’t answer the phone. And I’ve taken to not answering the phone more and more. Also, people that dig it, seem to want to talk and have a conversation about what’s happening, and I can’t. I’m working. I’m like three songs ahead of what’s playing, formulating the upcoming set.

When you’re on the air, I feel better, safer. Even when I can’t listen to you. It’s like knowing Riz is out there, on air, everything is OK.
You're too nice. You know the internet is threatening to change all that. The texture, in ways. I play certain things specifically because I’m on at night. For the night. But by virtue of the fact that it’s an international around the world thing, some of that is lost. I have a regular listener in Estonia, northern Europe, next to the Baltic Sea, who listens while they’re at work. Sometimes my stuff doesn’t work for people at work.

What makes a song nocturnal as opposed to being a daytime song?
Well, there’s some other things that are happening too. Now, I go on after the African show on Mondays. But before, on Thursdays, I used to follow a country show. So part of the beginning of a show is how to make the transition from that to where I think I might end up going. That’s the first thing I think in establishing connections. The second thing is that we have requirements. While we do also have tremendous amounts of freedom, we do have boundaries. One of the boundaries that we have is our rotation. And rotation ensures that people get to hear new stuff. But the DJ’s have to figure out how to fit the rotation into where it is they want their show to go. So where am I going to play the new Damien Jurado? Not so much in a set, but in an evening. I know I’m going to play it, where’s it going to go?

I tend to walk in and start putting genres together and getting an idea for the sets, and see where they stand with what’s in rotation, and working it out that way. Last week I played Faust. Because I really wanted to. But I’m like, “OK, I’m going to drop Faust when? Where’s it going to go?” There’s a constant patching of things going on. And I know it’s night time, so people tend to be more reflective, as opposed to needing a visceral jolt. The visceral stuff that happens at night tends to be more on the sexy side. Maybe on a Saturday night, they’d go for punk, because they’re out partying or whatever. But if they’re home on a Monday, I think they’re going to go for something a bit more textural. And I’m a big fan of pretty. I don’t think there’s enough pretty in the world. If I ever lose my job at KEXP, I think I’m going to lose it for playing too much pretty shit. People don’t want to hear pretty. Some guy told me last week, “It seems like you’re just gonna be mellow.” But I wasn’t going for mellow, I was going for pretty. The Weather Channel goes for mellow. KPLU goes for mellow. I’m going for something a bit more elusive.

There are times I walk in and go, “We need classical music.” Cliché is to play Debussy. Less cliché is to play John Cage. So let’s figure out how to get John Cage up in here.

How many hours a week on average do you spend gathering and studying new music?
Ten to fifteen. I listen to music all the time. If you see me on the street, if I’m not with somebody, then I have headphones on. And a good amount of time, I have headphones on because I’m doing homework. CD’s still work for that. I don’t know how I’m going to make the transition to downloads. That’s going to be difficult for me. I tend to listen to music less when I’m at home. I employ an inner ear. Like, I’m gonna get off the phone and there’s gonna be a song that comes to mind that’s reminiscent of this conversation, and I’m gonna have to log that because it’s now part of the arsenal. And then of course, I’m morbid. Garry Shider just died, from Funkadelic. So I’m playing Garry Shider the next time I’m on the air. Not any of the obvious “One Nation Under a Groove” or any of that. He did this song, one of my favorite Funkadelic moments, in Portland a few years a ago. Where they opened up with a slow song called “I’ll Stay”. I’d never seen them do it before. I got the feeling that out of the entire audience, there were only two or three people that were really into it. It was phenomenal. Or maybe I’ll play a cover of it, there’s a cover of it that D’Angelo sings. When Lena Horne died I had to go to YouTube and rip her and Kermit the Frog singing “It Ain’t Easy Being Green”. As opposed to “Stormy Weather”.

Can you put together a playlist for me that encapsulates a Riz show?
You have to give me a starting point.

It has to be atmospheric and elongating. How about Mountains?
Mountains it is. I really feel that it’s not about me though. It’s about us. And it’s about declaring and describing the us as I perceive it at the time. It wouldn’t work if you weren’t there. If listeners weren’t there. It couldn’t happen. That’s the truth of it, and I don’t take it lightly. It’s not just that I have an audience, it’s a we thing. I’m constantly trying to declare that we thing, and hold it up. It’s my job to do the we thing. That’s why I’m here.